(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although H. G. Wells had already envisioned a nuclear war in his 1914 novel The World Set Free and subsequent writers had described various atomic superweapons, it was only in the 1950’s that a subgenre of science fiction related to nuclear holocaust became widely popular. Level 7 is part of a large num-ber of nuclear war novels written in reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and in response to the atomic arms race, particularly the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Level 7 differs from most representatives of this genre in shifting its emphasis from the actual nuclear war and the subsequent suffering of civilians (or optimistic depictions of a new frontier, as in Pat Frank’s 1959 best-selling novel Alas, Babylon) to a detailed, almost clinical study of the mindset of one of the men who will actually “push the button.” The absolute lack of a moral consciousness makes X-127 a fascinating character.

Level 7 satirizes many of the conventions of utopian literature. Like many traditional utopias, Roshwald’s novel depicts a society that separates itself from the outside world, develops a creation myth that explains its superiority, emphasizes symmetry and balance (down to the equal number of men and women on Level 7), and generally employs rational planning in all aspects of human life. There is even a “resident philosopher” who proclaims that Level 7 is without a doubt the best of all possible worlds, as it supposedly offers both freedom and security—a claim the protagonist gradually comes to reject.

Level 7 is an inverted utopia, of course, and the technique of inversion is widespread in this text. Number symbolism (everyone’s “name” contains the number 7), traditional concepts of inferiority and superiority (up is hell and down is heaven), and even the very notion of progress are treated ironically. Technological progress— even the “peaceful” nuclear reactor—inevitably leads to destruction. The novel ends with the last human being regressing to a childlike state before dying in a darkened room.

Roshwald’s Level 7 has achieved an enduring popularity because it focuses, like few other post-doomsday novels of its time, on the factors that allow nuclear war to occur, rather than on the horrifying event itself. Fiction describing nuclear war often presents nuclear conflicts as sudden catastrophes threatening the lives of individuals. Level 7 shows how easily individuals can be trained to become cogs in the machinery of mass destruction.